Pardon me, but I do have this hangup about the 76-51. I don't want people to forget the 76-51, for the 76-51 dumbfounded anyone who saw it and epitomized why I watch sports: for the occasional sheer wonder.
I worry for the 76-51 amid the gusher of thoughts that come at the death at 64 of Rick Majerus, from the front-desk clerk at the Salt Lake City Marriott to the bagels to the hallway media session that found its way to Vietnam and the question of heaven, to the hefty coach's jarring candor, to his capacity for confessing human frailty, to his thousands of decent turns, to his coaching habits that could lurch toward peculiar meanness, to his contradictions that included kindheartedness toward national media but surliness toward the local (all while oblivious about his image), to that poignant press conference in Nashville when he brought to light the tormented lives of coaches.
You keep thinking about the outsized American life that ended on Saturday and coursed through coaching stints at Marquette, Ball State, Utah and Saint Louis -- and the 76-51 starts to get deluged. The obituaries do their jobs and tell dutifully of the Rick Majerus who coached Utah -- Utah! - clear to the 1998 national championship game. They make it clear that Utah lost that Monday night, and usually they get to the fact that it lost to Kentucky. Some might note that Majerus' Utah lost to Kentucky in four of the six NCAA tournaments between 1993 and 1998, and that Majerus suggested they bury him at the Churchill Downs wire so that Kentucky could continue to run over him eternally.
Somewhere in there, and in the excellent 1998 Final Four, in which Utah felled the North Carolina of Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison in a semifinal, the busy mind might lose space for the West Regional final in Anaheim, Calif. It might neglect an insuperably remarkable feat of coaching that lent us all the rare sight of a juggernaut flummoxed, then frustrated, then lost, then disintegrated.
When we do think of Majerus, let's try not to forget that on Friday, March 20, 1998, Arizona was a rollicking mastodon of basketball rock-stardom, and that by Sunday, March 22, Arizona was home for good, because on the Saturday in between came the 76-51.
Some bookkeeping: Arizona entered that Elite Eight as a defending national champion, a No. 1 seed and a 10-1/2 point favorite. It averaged 91.9 points per game. With the thrilling perimeter triumvirate of Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and Michael Dickerson, it had scored more than 100 points five times, more than 90 17 times, more than 80 30 times and 70 or more all 34 times. Its lowest score had come in a 70-57 win at California, and the Bears should have received some sort of little honorary trophies after that. Arizona had gone 17-1 in the Pac-10. It had won 23 of its previous 24 games, the outlier a cosmetic 91-90 loss at USC. Back in Maui in November, it had taken that poised eventual national champion from Kentucky and made it look skittish. It would not just go to the Final Four; it would bullet-train there.
So after clawing through West Virginia by 65-62 on Thursday, No. 3-seeded Utah faced a second straight regional-final defeat and a lot of pats on the head for its small-conference gumption. Majerus went sleepless watching film, and the estimable Andy Katz, then a lowly newspaper man, reported that George Karl joined Majerus on Thursday night and Ben Howland on Friday night. Through that did Majerus inform his team that it would deploy what he called "an old friend," a triangle-and-two defense, against the breathtaking Wildcats.
Andre Miller, Majerus' great college point guard still thriving in the NBA, would say that he found this triangle-and-two idea downright daffy. He pictured Simon streaming easily to the basket. He pictured Arizona's side of the scoreboard with three digits.
In the first of the four regional finals, in the undercard, the afterthought, they tipped off …
Now, I have so many thoughts about Rick Majerus, just from running across him once in a while. I loved that he resided in a hotel -- fresh towels! -- and so I once dialed the hotel manager, who told me that he came into work at some wee hour one morning to find Majerus helping the front-desk clerk with her schoolwork. He said Majerus would bring bagels for the whole staff.
Further, Majerus' phenomenal basketball mind still had room for general knowledge that always shone through in those valuable (to a reporter) hallway sessions at NCAA tournaments. One day in the hallway, he said this: "I had two classmates, from two grades, eighth grade and high school, who died in that war [Vietnam]. It don't know that there's this great beyond. If I knew there was a great beyond, I wouldn't have any objection to going. If I knew there was a great beyond, I'd have a happy life. But if there isn’t any great beyond, then what happened to those kids?"
Most coaches avoid such topics -- for one thing, confessing doubt about heaven might hurt recruiting -- but Majerus always had the candor. He might say, "I cost my team a game this year when I ...." He once second-guessed the holiday card of the father of a former player because it focused so heavily on that former player at the expense of his three non-NBA siblings. He openly fretted that coaching had become "a haberdashery contest" (which always sort of bugged me, too).
In the self-mockery division, he noted Kentucky fans' general friendliness toward him and said, "I guess when you're the doormat, it's easy for them to be gracious."
So I think of all of that, and I think of the kind turns toward media figures whom I like and respect, toward Joe McDonnell in Los Angeles, toward Bernie Miklasz in St. Louis, toward Gene Wojciechowski all over the place. I know Majerus presented a jumbled puzzle, the kind of open study in human nature found too rare in sports anymore. Those who played for him saw much world-class compassion and some low-class meanness. Keith Van Horn made him a godfather; meanwhile, Sports Illustrated tallied that only 33 of Majerus' 80 Utah recruits stayed around long enough to become seniors.
And so on.
So they tipped off in Anaheim, with the rugged Utes posting 6-foot-5 Drew Hansen on Bibby, the 6-foot-8 Alex Jensen on Simon and the other three defenders making their isosceles. Arizona got an 8-7 lead, then Utah bolted to a 17-8 lead, and Miller excelled, and Utah led 29-20 at halftime, as everybody waited for the inevitable Arizona run.
That run was coming.
It absolutely was coming.
Utah would have to master the art of hanging on ....
And then, I also know I've never gotten any clearer picture of the brains of coaches than from Majerus one Saturday in Nashville at the 2003 NCAA tournament. His team had reached the second round and would play, somehow, Kentucky, the program that beat Utah in the final 32 in 1993, the final 16 in 1996, the final eight in 1997 and the final two in 1998. Somebody asked about Kentucky, and instead of the anticipated deflection or defense, the room wound up with insight.
Five years on from 1998, and Majerus recollected dining that summer with Bill Foster, the Duke coach who lost the 1978 title game to Kentucky, and that Foster recognized Majerus' depression because it resembled what showed in Foster's own face in 1978. "For that one moment in life," Majerus said longingly, "you have a chance to be associated vividly with a champion."
And: "It's something you always live with, sort of like being an also-ran."
From a title game in which Utah led by 12 early in the second half and eventually by 65-60, but lost 78-69, Majerus said he could remember every play of the galling run-out-of-gas stretch, "in sequence, to this day." He noted how coaches suffer defeats more than they relish victories and he said, "It's funny how we're all plagued by that."
He sounded so sad that the room hushed.
Well, if you watched Utah-Arizona in the arena or on TV from afar as I did, and you had not just fallen in off the turnip truck, you surely kept waiting for the Arizona binge.
It never came. It … just … never ... came. And in the rarest of sports sights, it never really even revved up toward coming.
To any appreciator of defense, the statistics after 40 minutes looked like some gorgeous wreckage. Utah had held Arizona 41 points below its average. Arizona had shot 17 for 60, or 28 percent. It had gone 4 for 22, or 18 percent, from three-point range. Bibby had gone 3 for 15 with seven points, Simon 1 for 9 with six. Together they missed all 10 of their three-point shots. Dickerson chimed in with 2 for 12, six points. Add it up, and the unstoppable trio thudded at 6 for 36 from the floor.
Seventy-six to 51. An upset romp. A masterpiece of the influence of coaching. Arizona coach Lute Olson: "Utah played better, frankly, than anybody we've played all year long, by miles." Bibby: "I have no idea what happened." Simon: "Their defense was everywhere." Utah's Michael Doleac (eventually of the NBA): "We don't have the best players, but we have the hardest-working players." Majerus: "We're here because we defend."
Miller, whom Majerus had encouraged toward a college degree, had 18 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists, a better basketball line hard to find on this Earth. Utah headed for its first Final Four in 32 years. The Western Athletic Conference headed for its first Final Four in 32 years. And it came to ring truthful, what Doleac said 10 years later to S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated: "Majerus is by far the best coach I've ever played for," a list that included Pat Riley and Chuck Daly. "He's got an unbelievable ability to see the game; he can watch a play and know what all 10 guys are doing and what each did wrong. You wouldn't believe it but then you'd watch the film and he was right every time."
So with so many ways to remember this vivid figure, I do want that score -- 76-51! -- to last somehow, because when I think of that score, I think of Majerus sitting there those nights, into wee hours, gazing at that film, trying to sort out the eternal five-on-five riddle that so captured and beguiled his fine and varied mind. Somehow, when I picture him trying to find some way to defuse the mighty Arizona, I do see a rare kind of restless contentment.